Sunday, February 22, 2009

William Shakespeare

Regardless of one's religion or reading interests, it would be hard to make the case for being a fully paid up member of Western Civilization without some passing knowledge of either the King James Bible or the works of William Shakespeare. It is quite remarkable that these two sets of documents, one addressing the spirit of humans and the other the human condition, should have been written within a few years of one another and should both be such a deep and continuing well of inspiration and source of still used idioms and adages.

"The English language is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven" wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps the two single largest tributaries are works created in the same twenty year span, the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare established himself as one of the major tributaries and has forever affected the flow of English literature, theater, language and philosophy. The breadth of his work in a mere thirty-eight plays (when many of his contemporary playwrights were writing and producing between fifty and a hundred plays or more) and a couple of hundred poems is quite remarkable.

Was there something unique about him or was he just in the right place at the right time. There are some milestone contributors to our Western Civilization whose contributions to our knowledge and way of thinking are much more specific, concrete and therefore more safely indisputable. Aristotle, Newton, Einstein all leap to mind. A writer is always going to be on more tenuous ground. An Aristotle changes our way of thinking about the world by changing our mental models. A Shakespeare changes the flavor of our thinking as it were.

There is no denying that there was something in the air and in the environment. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all of Europe was blooming. Populations were resurging from the devastation of the black plague epidemics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. New ways of thinking were in the air. Exploration was pushing back the boundaries of ignorance and widening the scope of trade.

With the resurgence of population and the filling up of empty spaces across Europe, there was a knitting together of isolated populations. In Britain, the regional speech patterns were more than curious accents: an East Anglian might be close to incomprehensible to someone from Cornwall just as someone from Schleswig-Holstein might be to someone from Bavaria. With the spread of population came the reestablishment of roads and local trade. Isolated dialects came into greater contact with one another. The national languages became enriched by regional contributions. The advent of the printing press and more particularly, the increased use of local vernaculars instead of Latin, led to efforts to standardize spelling and grammar. We can read and comprehend Shakespeare as if he were writing within our lifetime instead of four hundred years ago. Another great author, Geoffrey Chaucer, writing just a century and a half before Shakespeare, is virtually incomprehensible to us unless translated.

Cervantes (Spanish and a contemporary of Shakespeare's) and other commanding authors such as Goethe (Germany) and Dante (Italy) all stood athwart this two or three century period of cultural and linguistic exuberance and some portion of their enduring fame is probably a function of being in the right place and the right time. And no doubt, Shakespeare was an extraordinary beneficiary by being the dominating author in the language that became the lingua franca of the modern world.

Yet it wasn't solely luck and passively showing up at the right place and time. Shakespeare's contemporaries were in his lifetime already recognizing and affirming his enduring greatness. As noted playwright and Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson wrote at that time, Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time."

In this period of linguistic flux, Shakespeare seized upon the language and made it sing, made it answer his bidding and made it a tool to be used as it had never been used before. Many hundreds of words have their first documented usage in Shakespeare's plays. Words we take for granted such accommodation, assassination, dexterously, dislocate, indistinguishable, obscene, pedant, premeditated, reliance, submerged. All of these were mustered into service by Shakespeare.

It was not just neologisms which marked Shakespeare. It was also his turn of phrase. A British journalist has in a couple of passages, made the point of just how deep a mark he has made on our day-to-day language. As Bernard Levin noted,
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have ever played fast and loose, if you have ever been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was as dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! For goodness; sake! What the dickens! But me no buts - it is alone to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

Any one of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays is a playground of new words, and familiar phrases that have entered our everyday language. Take Hamlet for instance, one of his most admired works. Here is just a sampling of the turns of phrase that have crept into our familiar patterns of speech:
Frailty, thy name is woman!

More in sorrow than in anger

The primrose path of dalliance

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

The time is out of joint

Brevity is the soul of wit

More matter with less art

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it

The play's the thing

To be or not to be: that is the question

A king of shreds and patches

I must be cruel, only to be kind

Alas poor Yorick

A hit, a very palpable hit

The rest is silence

It's like the old joke: Lady comes out of the theater having seen Hamlet for the first time. "I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's just a bunch of quotes strung together."

The breadth and depth of Shakespeare's work is astonishing. Histories, dramas and comedies are certainly part of it but more critically, in the same play he wrote a script that appealed to the privileged and the penurious, to the educated and the untutored, to men and to women, to the bawdy and to the refined. The audiences in his Globe Theater all saw the same play and came away with the Bard having told them each a different story according to their own circumstance.

Without a doubt, perhaps the brightest literary star in any language. But! When and how to introduce him to children? His language does have some archaic turns of phrase. There are allusions that are predicated upon some knowledge of the classics and of history. Perhaps most challenging, many of his works hang on a knowledge and experience of the full range of human character. Most children are lacking in much of this knowledge and experience. They have not trod life's stage long enough to comprehend.

Indeed, Jonson might have expanded his famous observation to 'was not of an age, but for all time and all ages', for Shakespeare, in a way different from virtually every author, is a pleasure for life and an ever fresh companion. There are always new turns of phrase that you come across. Just the other day I was listening to an audio book version of Macbeth and a phrase registered that I had never paid attention to before. Banquo mentions that if he doesn't get a move on, he "must become a borrower of the night" i.e. if he doesn't start now he will have to travel after sunset.

That is one of the pleasures of reading Shakespeare. He is not only a master dramatist and poet, but he is akin to a wonderful puzzle, forcing you to fit into the mind of a person from a different time and place. Where activities ended at sunset and where speech was often allusive and indirect. In Henry IV, Pistol refers to his youthful carousing with that archetypal ne'er-do-well, Falstaff, and alludes to their having "seen the seven stars." This is exactly the sort of allusion that frustrates some children and intrigues others. The seven stars are the Pleiades, typically seen in the darkest hours of night. So one child will read this and go Huh! while another will puzzle their way into understanding that this is Shakespeare's indirect way of saying that Pistol and Falstaff drank their way into the wee hours of the night.

As life advances, I find myself not only continuing to re-read (and always finding more insight from) the plays that have always been my favorites (Macbeth, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest) but over time, reading and discovering the other plays that once left me indifferent. I am still growing into them even at this late stage.

Given that Shakespeare is truly an adult entertainment and most often requires adult sensibilities and life experiences, does it even make sense to introduce him to children. I think so, if only to counter the often pervasive myth that Shakespeare is too old, or too archaic, or too irrelevant.. In our perennial popular desire to turn away from gold in pursuit of pyrite, our institutions of learning cannot necessarily be relied upon to do Shakespeare justice.

I think the best approach is to plow the field in anticipation of a child later being exposed to Shakespeare for the first time and inoculate them against the prejudice towards past greatness. A favorite book I used with our children, and which is regrettably out of print, was Gina Pollinger's Something Rich and Strange, a selection of quotations and passages from Shakespeare in a heavily illustrated format. They might not be old enough to follow and understand the full story but children are always old enough to enjoy the music and magic of Shakespeare's language.

There is of course the perennial retelling of Shakespeare's stories by Charles and Mary Lamb in Tales from Shakespeare and more contemporaneously, Bruce Corville also retells most of the major play while retaining as much of the original dialogue as possible. Don't miss Edith Nesbit's retelling of a dozen Shakespeare plays in The Children's Shakespeare.

There are many quite good stories that are based on Shakespeare's life and times such as The King of Shadows by Susan Cooper or The Shakespeare Stealer series by Gary L. Blackwood. Even for young readers there are some happy choices such as Don Freeman's Will's Quill, or How a Goose Saved Shakespeare, and Marcia Williams' Tales From Shakespeare (retellings illustrated in cartoon style). There are also irreverent guides to Shakespeare that might particularly appeal to a Fifth Grade sense of humor such as Wayne Hill's Shakespeare's Insults.

Instead of praising Shakespeare further, let's leave with a sampling of one of the all-time greatest speeches as rendered by Shakespeare - that of King Henry V at Agincourt, the St. Crispin Day speech:
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man's company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words-

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Young Adults

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to books for Young Adults

Picture Books

William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare and Marina Kastan Recommended

William Shakespeare & the Globe by Aliki Suggested

Shakespeare's Quill by Gerry Bailey and Karen Foster and illustrated by Leighton Noyes and Karen Radford Suggested

Wills Quill, Or, How a Goose Saved Shakespeare by Don Freeman Suggested

Shakespeare Cats by Susan Herbert Suggested

Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard by Gregory Rogers Suggested

Bard of Avon by Peter Vennema and Diane Stanley Suggested

Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams Suggested

More Tales From Shakespeare by Marcia Williams Suggested

Macbeth for Kids by Lois Burdett & William Shakespeare Suggested

Twelfth Night by Lois Burdett and Christine Coburn Suggested

A Midsummer Night's Dream by Lois Burdett Suggested

Much Ado About Nothing for Kids by Lois Burdett Suggested

Hamlet by Lois Burdett and William Shakespeare Suggested

The Tempest by Lois Burdett and William Shakespeare Suggested

A Child's Portrait of Shakespeare by Lois Burdett Suggested

Independent Reader

The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood Recommended

Shakespeare's Scribe by Gary L. Blackwood Recommended

Shakespeare's Spy by Gary L. Blackwood Recommended

Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney Recommended

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper Recommended

Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Michael Foreman Recommended

Shakespeare Stories II by Leon Garfield and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Michael Foreman Recommended

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet Recommended

The Children's Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Rolf Klep Recommended

Shakespeare by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Robert R. Ingpen Recommended

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt Recommended

William Shakespeare's Hamlet by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Leonid Gore Recommended

William Shakespeare's a Midsummer Night's Dream by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Dennis Nolan Recommended

William Shakespeare's Macbeth by Bruce Coville and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Gary Kelley Recommended

Romeo and Juliet by Bruce Coville and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Dennis Nolan Recommended

William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale by Bruce Coville and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Leuyen Pham Recommended

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by Bruce Coville and William Shakespeare and illustrated by Tim Raglin Recommended

Shakespeare: The Bard's Guide to Abuses and Affronts by William Shakespeare Recommended

Romeo and Juliet Together and Alive at Last by Avi Suggested

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach Suggested

Welcome to the Globe! by Peter Chrisp Suggested

Shakespeare by Peter Chrisp and illustrated by Steve Teague Suggested

Stories from Shakespeare by Marchette Chute Suggested

Something Rotten by Alan M. Gratz Suggested

Shakespeare's Insults by William Shakespeare, Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen Suggested

William Shakespeare edited by David Scott Kasten and Marina Kastan and illustrated by Glenn Harrington Suggested

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ronald Koertge Suggested

Loving Will Shakespeare by Carolyn Meyer Suggested

Tales from Shakespeare by Tina Packer and illustrated by various Recommended

William Shakespeare by Stewart Ross Suggested

Young Adult

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson Recommended

Great Books by David Denby Recommended

William Shakespeare Complete Works edited by Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen and Heloise Senechal

Shakespeare by Harold Bloom Suggested

Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell Suggested

The Playmaker by J. B. Cheaney Suggested

Shakespeare's Words by David Crystal and Ben Crystal Suggested

Dating Hamlet by Lisa Fiedler and William Shakespear Suggested

So You Think You Know Shakespeare? by Clive Gifford Suggested

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare and edited by Roma Gill Suggested

Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt Suggested

The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber Suggested

Coined by Shakespeare by Jeff McQuain and Stanley Malless and illustrated by R.O. Blechman Suggested

Swan Town by Michael J. Ortiz Suggested

Scribbler of Dreams by Mary E. Pearson Suggested

Will by Christopher Rush Suggested